He is extra cool, this black dude. He is long and tall with purple pants and sideburns. Chuck Berry is one cat who has been down the pike.
This story is about the father of rock ‘n’ roll music. If you don’t think Chuck Berry earned that title, then come on along:
We’re in the H.I.C. arena Saturday before last.
Row upon row of hairies wait expectantly.
HE APPEARS SUDDENLY on stage like a phantom from a time machine. It could just as well be 1955, except for the hair and the pungent smell in the air.
Yes, sir. Chuck Berry. In the flesh.
Berry does a plunk on his electric guitar that sends a PRRRAAANNNGGG reverberating through the arena. And the vibration of rock ‘n’ roll history shivers the spines of the hairies.
They begin to move in anticipation.
But Chuck Berry waves a finger and gives them a grin he knows will turn ’em on. “Uh, uh, baby, not yet, I’m just warming up,” his grin says. “Y’all can dig it.”
THEY DIG IT. Yes they do, every mother’s son out there in that living sheep’s fleece that lines the arena.
Many of those dudes weren’t even born when Chuck Berry first flashed his stuff in the black underground in the early 1950s. Why, this man is LIVING HISTORY, YES, LIVING HISTORY.
Here it comes then:
Honey is that you?
Honey is that you?
THEY LOVE IT. Straight from the past. How can they help it? This is Chuck Berry, the boy from Wentzville, Mo.
He is the real daddy of rock ‘n’ roll — Elvis Presley, Bill Haley or other nominees notwithstanding.
He was 28 years old in 1955 when he fought his way up from the black record market and made it big with “Maybellene.”
The aficionados of rock ‘n’ roll know Chuck Berry is the one, baby. Elvis Presley was a lot of fancy movie magazine and public relations.
CHUCK BERRY did it without managers and hangers-on.
The really heavy kids imitated him and a handful of other black musicians. They did it listening to weird little 45 RPMs.
The white rock ‘n’ roll stars stole the songs and the style from the black musicians then got the publicity and the bread. The same thing happened to black jazz musicians 30 years earlier.
But Chuck Berry was the first. He knows it and the hairies know it. And he is still mean and lean, baby.
OLD CHUCK hops across the stage on one leg, a classic 1950s move, as the cosmic echo of his guitar races across the matted hair of the arena.
The hair begins to undulate. It floats in the stale arena air like the tendrils of some weird sea creature. sucking in particles of Chuck Berry fire. They have freaky brains to feed.
The freaky brains set the bodies into boogie motion. Cause and effect, just like Isaac Newton said.
Now Chuck Berry uses his guitar like a machine gun, in turn mowing down the audience, the drummer and his backup guitar with an electric staccato PRRRAAANNNGGG, PRRRAAANNNGGG, PRRRAAANNNGGGG!
THE HAIRIES dig it, so the sweaty black cat up there on the stage gives them the full Chuck Berry treatment. He lowers the guitar between his legs and with an obscene leer that has them grinning, he shows them how a real rock ‘n’ roll musician did it.
PRRRAAANNNGGG! EEELECTRIC CHUCK BEEER-RRYYY!
He does the splits now, moving the guitar in and out.
“All right?” he asks and mops his brow.
“All right!” the hairies respond. Boogie! Boogie!
So Chuck Berry takes them back on a cosmic boogie trip:
“Let me hear some of that rock ‘n’ roll music,
“Any old way you choose it,
“It’s got a back beat you can’t lose it,
“Any old way you use it,
“It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music,
“If you wanna dance with me.”
WHAT IS DIFFERENT about this music? Well, you can ask the hairies. They’ll give you some good answers. But there are all kinds of possibilities.
One possibility is that Chuck Berry is the musical equivalent of Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century preacher who set out to put ecstasy back in religion.
Before he came along in the 1730s, those austere Puritan ministers in New England pleaded the case of God-like corporation lawyers. They had ice in their veins, deciding “intellectual” questions with logical debate.
Edwards was a hell-fire and damnation man — from the guts.
What kind of music did we have back in the early 50’s before Berry and the others? Well, we had classical music, of course, and jazz. But jazz, which had been the music of the guts, was becoming cerebral.
And popular music? Well, we had “That’s Amore,” “Doggie in the Window,” and “Stranger in Paradise” to name a few.
But where’s the fire there? Where’s the feeling?
LISTEN TO CHUCK BERRY, he’ll tell you what the rock ‘n’ roll musicians were doing.
“Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll!
“Deliver me from the days of old,
“Long live rock ‘n’ roll,
“The beat of the drums so loud and bold,
“Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll”
“The feeling is there body and soul.”
Yes, babies, that’s it. Body and soul.
“Is that all right?” Berry asks the hairies in the arena.
“ALL RIGHT!” comes the reply — all those hairies standing on their chairs pulsing up and down. Boogie! Boogie!
“The smell of that smoke is getting groovy,” says Chuck Berry. He’s standing square in the middle of a lavender strobe now, peering through the strange fog which has settled over the hairies.
They’re in his hip pocket. He has been on the road for more than 20 years now because he knows ECSTASY!
“It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well
“It was there that Pierre was married to the lovely mademoiselle.
‘Cest la vie,’ say the old folks, goes to show that you never can tell.”
HE IS DOWN on his knees now, bending over backwards playing his electric sound machine. The back of his head is touching the stage.
The hairies want more. They’re standing face-to-face with the VERY BEGINNING. And they love it. They want to know what it looked like and how it sounded.
Chuck Berry is what it looked like and what it sounded like.
“Johnny B. Goode,” cries a voice. “Johnny B. Goode,” echoes another. “Johnny B. Goode! Johnny B. Goode!”
It is 11:30 pm. now and the throbbing fleece knows the time is near. Boogie! Boogie!
Berry is building them up to a climax that would make Billy Sunday pale with envy. This is music with the stuff of people in it. Fire!
It’s tough to breathe now without getting high. And all the boogiers are inching down the aisles to hear this prophet of 15 years ago flash his stuff.
The cops know something crazy is happening in the arena tonight.
BERRY HAS FIRE in his guts. He is out there ON THE VERY EDGE. ON THE VERY EDGE, BABY.
And here it comes at last, preceded by a grunt and a grin.
“His mother told him, ‘Son, someday you’ll be a man.
“An’ you will be the leader of a big old hand,
“Many people coming from miles around.
“Hear you play your music when the sun goes down.
“Maybe someday your name will be in lights,
“Saying ‘Johnny B. Goode tonight.’
“Go, go, go Johnny go.
“Johnny B. Goode.”
THEN IT IS Chuck Berry bends their bloody minds. He is the leader of that big old band.
He ain’t got no winky name, three chords and some gooney little trick that won’t last six months like those ’60s freaks. No sir. He is the original, the first, the one and only
CHUCK BERRY! They came for miles around to hear CHUCK BERRY!
He caresses his electric music machine with an obscene tongue that comes out of his mouth about eight pink inches. He does the splits, plays on his back, hops across the stage on one and then the other leg, holds the music machine out in front of him, over his head, behind him…
HE GOES ON AND ON, driving the rock beat into the very psyches of the frenzied hairies. They want more, more.
“Go, go, go Johnny go,
“Johnny B. Goode.”
All the ’50s creakies out there, they know. And they smile at all the young hairies boogying up and down to the fire in Berry’s guts.
Chuck Berry is of the creakies’ time. In a decade of American history condemned for its small-mindedness, blandness and apathy, Chuck Berry set the spark. Chuck Berry kindled the flame.
Chuck Berry & John Lennon play (1972)
Chuck Berry and John Lennon teamed up to play “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Johnny B. Goode” on the Mike Douglas show back in 1972.